John Kuglin: 21st Century Learning and the 'Youth Media Culture'


John Kuglin's background is as eclectic as the 21st century learning skillset he advocates. He's been an educator since 1971. He's worked with NASA by way of the Earth Observing System project at the University of Montana. He's been a vice president at a digital media authoring and production studio (ComChoice, now known as Scope Seven). And now, as CIO of Eagle County Schools in Colorado, he's at the forefront of developing technology-infused learning environments that will help prepare today's kids for the new realities of the 21st century.

Kuglin's approach to fostering these learning environments centers around four key concepts he refers to in his frequent speaking engagements by the acronym "SWIM"--space, Web, infrastructure, and media. As he explains in this interview, these four concepts provide the basis for educators "to create new and engaging 21st century learning environments" for the generation of students he dubs the "youth media culture."

Kuglin will be speaking at two sessions on these topics at the FETC 2009 conference, being held Jan. 21-24, 2009 in Florida: "Global Competitiveness = E3(SWIM)" and "The 21st Century Web: Beyond the 2.0 Tools."

THE Journal: You use this acronym "SWIM" frequently in your presentations. Can you talk about what that means?

John Kuglin: I've been around for quite a few years, and I remember when Nicholas Negroponte (the creator of the MIT Media Lab with Jerome B. Wiesner) coined the word "convergence." Back then and before QuickTime, he was talking about the convergence of computers and television. Since that time, technology has continued to develop. I have been fortunate to hold positions in various industries allowing me to watch different forms of technology grow, evolve and merge. What I have witnessed is the continual convergence of maturing technologies and the joining of forces to provide new opportunities. Thus, the outcome for educators is the opportunity to create new and engaging 21st century learning environments. With that backdrop, let me explain the four areas that make up the acronym "SWIM" and the convergent areas that can foster new learning environments.

"S" stands for the advancements in "space technologies" and the related application to education. I developed a background with selected space technologies while working for NASA at the University of Montana. I had the opportunity to work with cutting edge satellite technology such as Google Earth and have watched it mature for years.

"W" stands for the advancements in "Web-based technologies." The Web continues to evolve from just a simple network where you consumed information to an advanced interactive system for creating and sharing knowledge in an ever increasingly flat world.

"I" stands for the importance of the network and other "infrastructure" developments. In my current position as chief information officer for the Eagle County School District in Colorado, I have learned the importance for the role that infrastructure plays in providing future learning systems. When I talk to people, I try to relate the importance of the infrastructure to President Eisenhower, who signed the Interstate Highway bill back in the '50s. He had a vision for what the highway infrastructure would mean to our country, to our future, and to our economy. That same vision can be applied to individuals seeking to understand the importance of building high-speed networks, and the related importance to teaching and learning.

Finally, "M" stands for "media" and how media continues to evolve, starting with the previously mentioned QuickTime, and now moving to advanced media delivery systems such as those provided by Discovery Education currently in use in Eagle County. iTunes U from Apple is another distribution system for advanced media that we are beginning to use. I placed 42" LCD panels in all the classrooms throughout the county, which I call "tomorrow's technology today." These panels allow us to view content from our computers as well as from our media sources providing an endless window into the world. Administrators need to position their schools to receive media services and the new tier of HD educational media services that are on the horizon. Finally, new media technologies will soon provide cell phones to be equipped with mini projectors, as was demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show [CES] last January.

So it's the convergence of those four areas, and the related impact the combination will have on education that forms the word SWIM. Thus I use the term SWIM in the title of my presentation.

THE Journal: In one of your presentations coming up at the 2009 conference, you have it in the title as "E3(SWIM)." Can you talk about that twist on it?

Kuglin: Once you start to understand SWIM and the convergence taking place in the four described areas, you need to develop an understanding for how the newly formed capabilities can solve problems. I believe the four technologies represented in SWIM come together to help in three strategic areas, thus the E3.

The first E stands for "Education"--That is education for the 21st century. It's about how the convergent technologies combine to form new educational environments and opportunities for today's media-motivated youth.

The second E stands for a huge challenge facing the nation today--"Energy independence." Thomas Friedman ... in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, talks about innovation. He talks about America's ability to regain its strength, not trying to compete directly with China or India in labor, but by being innovators and creating solutions to world problems. As part of my address, I'm going to draw a comparison to what our nation is faced with in terms of challenges and how our educational system can be leveraged to prepare our children to become innovators and help solve problems.

The third E is the "Environment" and the importance for finding solutions that will save our planet from the current disturbing trends of warming, overpopulation, etc.

E3--"Education, Energy, and Environment"--all are areas we as educators need to be concerned about, and we must position our skills to help develop students to become innovators and problem solvers. The tools and technology environments provided through SWIM will help educators meet that coming challenge.

"Global Competitiveness = E3(SWIM)" is an unusual title I've put together for an unusual presentation. It's not your typical technology presentation. I'm trying to get people to think out of the box and into the future. We need to evaluate where we are as a country and what role we as educators have in helping to solve the world's problems. Children today face unprecedented hurdles in the complexity of global issues. Society must equip them with technological tools, creativity of thought, and the ability to merge these assets in resolving 21st century issues.

Kuglin addressing attendees of the FETC 2008 conference.


THE Journal: Can you give us an idea of what you think the role of educators is in this?

Kuglin: I think we need to move our thinking beyond just the core subjects of our base curriculum. I don't want to underemphasize the importance of core curriculum because it's very important. But I want us as educators to start thinking beyond core curriculum to skills that students are going to have to have in order to be prepared to be productive citizens.

If you take a look at some of those skills, some of those areas that we need to concentrate on are teaching our kids life skills and career skills, teaching them learning and innovation skills, [and teaching them] media and technology skills. That's where the 21st century learning model comes in: constructing lessons so that kids--especially at the high school level--work in teams using technology just as a tool, not as the end-all, and really [learn] how to solve problems. The quick of it is moving beyond just the core content into those areas that extend [the potential of] the learner for the 21st century.

THE Journal: So you're not talking about approaching technology as a sort of vocational skill, but just as a tool in your workbox for solving problems.

Kuglin: That's correct.

THE Journal: You talked about media, the "M" in SWIM. For a long time, a lot about formal learning has been about students ingesting and then regurgitating information. How do you see the role of media changing in terms of students becoming the producers of the information rather than just the recipients?

Kuglin: We have what I call a "youth media culture." Interesting story: I heard recently from an Apple engineer when I was doing a conference out in California. He said he makes his own private survey when he's out and about. He sees kids ... wearing the traditional white earbuds in their ears. He kind of stops them wherever they happen to be and informally asks them, "Hey, what are you listening to?" He told a story that kind of stuck with me about asking one young man in particular what he was listening to, and the kid's response was, "Which ear?"

It kind of sets you back a a little bit because people of our generation don't think that way. He was listening to his lecture in one ear while he was playing some music [at] a softer [level] in his other ear. But the fact of the matter is that students today are not only producers of knowledge, but they're this youth media culture. And the systems that are designed nowadays for them to interact--the various social networking sites, cell phone technology, ... the ability to create and share content--[are] something we have to tap into as far as our schools are concerned.

The delivery of media is huge. In our district, in fact, I installed not only Discovery streaming, which has the ability to take video clips and so forth that are keyed to standards ... [and] deliver [those] on to classrooms, [but also] Media Share, so that now gives us the ability to have either teacher-created content or district-created content (for professional development ...) or third party-created content and now put that into our same mechanisms, same log-in system, and deliver it out to our classrooms on demand.

So if we had a speaker at the beginning of the year, now we get a speaker form that gives us permission to [record] that person, [and] we can come back and digitize it and put it into our system so the teacher, six months down the road, can say, "Hey, what did Marzano say back in August?" And then, bang, click on it, and there's his speech coming out.

THE Journal: That's great. Are you doing much in the way of capture? Are you using classroom capture the way universities are doing, or is it more just special event capture?

Kuglin: Right now, it's special events. But we're gearing up to have a much larger role. We actually have two high schools under construction, and in those schools are going to be video production studios, not only for student-produced videos, but for video content that can be shot more professionally and then be redistributed out.

Here are the three [media sharing] mechanisms that are beginning to emerge:

One is what I was just describing with Media Share with Discovery streaming. That's one distribution system that we're able to use in schools.

Two is the coming of age of iTunes. ... [C]ontent can be uploaded and accessed through the Apple iTunes interface--which is a huge development, I believe--and then downloaded to the "teacher in the pocket," the iPod.

And here's another interesting twist that I'm working on up here. Our county government has established a video on demand channel on the Web. They went to the various entities in the county--the school district, ... the city of Vail, ... the city of Avon--and they now are asking for content that they will host for us.

So all of these systems are beginning to emerge that allow us to deliver content in new ways.

THE Journal: Now, is that going to tie in with production studios that you were talking about before, with students doing video production?

Kuglin: Yes. The idea is that we will have students producing video. And because we're going to invest in regular studio-quality greenscreen and so forth, I want to have our teachers, who are the keepers of the knowledge, [recorded on video] then distributed through iTunes, distributed through the county channel, all of the mechanisms....

These will be state of the art. And part of what I'm also trying to establish is that children who are signing up for courses at this high school level will be able to come out with the skills that would actually take them right into the television industry as sound men and cameramen and that kind of thing.

THE Journal: So there's a little bit of a vocational angle in there mixed in with the skills of producing information in general.

Kuglin: Yes, that would be fair because that's part of it.

THE Journal: You've talked a lot about your vision of technology in education and 21st century learning. But what do you think the hurdles are to the adoption of these concepts, or even just getting to the point where teachers want to embrace them?

Kuglin: The big hurdle is professional development.

This is my third year in Eagle. When I came on, [the mission for] my first year was to get a hold of the technology department, conduct a technology audit of the district, rebuild/reorganize the technology department itself from a human resources perspective, and start to plant the seed for a bond that the board wanted to run.

My role as chief information officer was not to sit passively back in the district office but to get out into the community at every single opportunity I had to do presentations on technology to let people know where the state of technology is, to let people know about 21st century learning and what their children are being deprived of if we can get these systems in here. So really I became a salesman.

We passed the bond, and then the second year I went into work, and we started to put the implementation in. We upgraded our high-speed networks, voice over IP, panels in the classrooms, all of the things the bond bought for us.

Now, as I tell my team, "That was the easy part. Here's the hard part." That's the professional development and moving into the facilitation of change, becoming that change agent.

I have to work directly with the curriculum department. I like to tell [my team] we're tied at the hip, which is an important point to make for technology directors and so forth: Don't be too techie, if you really want to see this stuff be used. You've got to have a relationship with the curriculum department.

So now I'm moving into other areas of the district, trying to infuse the idea of how to use technology effectively and creating the mechanisms whereby professional development can be delivered. Teachers are not going to use this stuff just because it's in their room. There's going to be a certain percent of them that get excited when they see a Promethean board in their lab or something, but meaningful change can only come from incorporating technology as part of the instructional model and not as a tool that you have to learn.

For instance, we put document cameras in all of our schools, and, instead of having document camera training, I've been trying to push the idea of, "Let's go in and create a lesson using a document camera, and on the first lesson or two incorporate how to use the camera but in the context of the lesson." In other words, [if] they wanted to look at a spider, here's how you'd do that. So the teacher would learn how to use the document camera by the task of looking at the spider, as opposed to, "Here's the document camera; go forth and prosper."

THE Journal: Do you get the sense that there's a very large percentage or a very small percentage of technology enthusiasts among the teachers?

Kuglin: Well, as this younger culture comes into the teaching ranks, I'm seeing that there's a higher degree of use of the technology because it's the way they were taught in schools ... hopefully most of them.

It's still generational in nature, although when I talk to teachers myself personally, I don't like to get into my scolding mode, but I do tell them, "This is 2008, and it's just not acceptable for you to be still trying to figure out how to open a browser. It's just not acceptable."

I am encouraged by what I've seen out there. I'm more encouraged by the way in which technology can be used to set up systems to deliver professional development. That is encouraging to have all of those media systems that I was describing earlier [and see] how they're going to come in and help us to deliver that ongoing, just-in-time professional development.

THE Journal: So how much of the effort do you think is still about trying to convince teachers to buy in to the concepts of using technology versus just giving them the instruction they need to get it done because they're enthusiastic about it?

Kuglin: The buy in for teachers is seeing the benefits that the children have when they use technology effectively in the classroom. Those who don't are almost being forced because students literally demand that nowadays given the world that they're coming from.

I see a growing number of administrators--high-ranking administrators--[bringing change, such as the] new superintendent in our district this year, who is very tech-savvy and who is coming in and setting expectations for the use [of technology]. She doesn't care about just the use of technology; she wants to see lessons created incorporating technology. There's a real point to make there.

And so I'm very encouraged by what I'm seeing.

The only other thing I think we need to see in the system, and this is somewhat controversial, is [a relaxation of No Child Left Behind]. Through No Child Left Behind, everything is standards-based. Everything is pretty much laid out: Here's what you have to do; we want you to do it; and then we're going to test you on it. I would like to see us get back into ... more of a relaxed environment where, in those teachable moments that crop up, the teacher actually has the leeway to stop and actually teach those particular points. We are so tied down with some of the basics that we're being required to teach that we don't have the leeway to incorporate [other types of instruction].

I'm hoping that we will see with the change of administration a little more of the environment that came back a few years ago [in which] we teach to the importance of standards, to the core subjects, but we're able to extend beyond the core subjects and be able to have the flexibility to truly teach and meet those children's needs when those teachable moments arise.

Kuglin will be speaking at the FETC 2009 conference in January. Further information can be found at FETC's site here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .